Places to Visit in Central Asia

Often referred to collectively as Central Asia, the countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan contain a diverse array of cultures and landscapes worth experiencing in person. Cultural landmarks along the Silk Road, like the 11th century Burana Tower, showcase the ancient architectural ingenuity found within the region, while majestic wonders like Charyn Canyon and Iskanderkul Lake reveal its stunning natural beauty. Here are 10 extraordinary places in Central Asia worth exploring.

1. Pamir Highway

Formally known by its Soviet road number M-41, the colloquially known Pamir Highway follows part of the ancient Silk Road trade route through the rugged Pamir Mountains. The famous road was paved mostly by the Soviets in the 1930s and has little in the way of signage or formal routing. The Pamir Highway passes through Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan, along scenic mountain terrain, across rivers, and through parts of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well—making it one of the best ways to see the region up close.

2. Kaindy Lake

Situated within Kolsay Lakes National Park in southern Kazakhstan, Kaindy Lake was formed in 1911 when a limestone landslide dammed up a gorge and it was filled with water from a mountain river. The beautiful lake, which reaches 1,300 feet long and 98 feet deep, has a blueish-green hue due to the deposit of limestone in the water. Kaindy Lake is also notable for the Asian spruce trunks rising above its surface, giving it the nickname “sunken forest.”

3. Mo'ynoq

In the sands of western Uzbekistan lies the former fishing town of Mo’ynoq. The once populous community has dwindled by the thousands since its heyday in the 1980s, when the Aral Sea still lapped up against the shores there. Over time, destructive irrigation practices of nearby cotton farms depleted the water to such an extent that it eventually evaporated altogether. Today, the fishing, the sea, and most of the people who once lived there are gone, leaving only the rusting remnants of the former beachfront stuck alone in the sand. Visitors to Mo’ynoq can take Jeep tours of what’s left of the former seaside village and see the city museum, which details what life was once like there.

4. Burana Tower

In the Chuy Valley of northern Kyrgyzstan, the 82-foot-tall Burana Tower stands as the last remaining vestige of the ancient city of Balasagun. Built by the Karakhanids in the 11th century, the structure is what’s known as a minaret—a tower built near mosques often used in the Muslim call to prayer. Burana Tower is made of brick and features an external staircase to the top, as well as a staircase on the inside. Although the tower is one of the oldest standing structures in Central Asia, it is not in its original state, having been reduced over the years from the height of 148 feet by earthquakes.

5. Door to Hell

A collapsed natural gas reservoir in a Turkmenistan cavern known as the Darvaza gas crater has been burning for decades and is often referred to as the Door to Hell. Although the specific dates are disputed, the story goes that Soviet engineers discovered the gas field sometime in the 1970s, and when they tried to assess the viability of the site and set up a rig, the reservoir collapsed. In an attempt to keep poisonous gases from the nearby village of Darvaza, the engineers set fire to the site and it has been burning ever since. Today, the Door to Hell has become a popular tourist attraction, with visitors pitching tents to camp in the desert sand close by.

6. Charyn Canyon

Part of Charyn National Park in Kazakhstan, Charyn Canyon is a mesmerizing natural wonder that runs 56 miles along the Charyn River. Beautiful rock sculptures formed by water and wind erosion can be found along the stunning two-mile-long Valley of Castles. The colorful and intricate red sandstone patterns adorning the walls throughout the canyon can be observed from a variety of hiking trails or from a white water raft or canoe in the river below.

7. Registan Square

Registan, or “sandy place” in Persian, was the center of the ancient city of Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan, and stands today as an impressive remnant of the Timurid Empire. The highlight of Registan Square are the three “madrassas,” Arabic for “schools,” that border the square. The first one built, Ulugh Beg Madrasa, was constructed from 1417 to 1420 by the grandson of the first Timurid ruler, Timur, and features a large, vaulted hall called an iwan, with two towering minarets on either side. The other two madrassas, Sher-Dor Madrasa and Tilya-Kori Madrasa, were built centuries later in the early and mid-17th century.

8. Iskanderkul Lake

Roughly 7,000 feet up in the Fann Mountains of the Sughd Province of Tajikistan lies the greenish-blue waters of Iskanderkul. The glacial lake was formed by a landslide that blocked the Saratogh River and is named after Alexander the Great, who passed through Tajikistan during his conquests. Along with the forests, rivers, and meadows surrounding it, the lake has been designated as a nature reserve and is popular tourist attraction due to its close proximity to the country’s capital, Dushanbe. Iskanderkul and the nature reserve that it’s a part of are home to a wide variety of birds—from sulphur-bellied warblers and white-winged snow finches to Himalayan rubythroats and fire-fronted serins.

9. Tomb of Ahmad Sanjar

Located within the medieval city of Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan, the Tomb of Ahmad Sanjar stands as a stunning example of 12th century architecture in the region. The structure is built from stucco, brick, terra cotta, and plaster, and features 46-foot-high walls in the shape of a cube with a large dome on top if it. Originally built in 1157, the mausoleum was made in honor of the recently deceased Seljuk ruler Ahmad Sanjar and was destroyed by the Mongols in 1221. The tomb was rebuilt several times over the centuries by a variety of groups, however, and today it’s a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the rest of the ancient city of Merv.

10. Song Kul

The alpine lake of Song Kul sits 9,895 feet high in the mountainous northern region of the Naryn Province in Kyrgyzstan. The 167-square-mile lake is the largest freshwater lake in Kyrgyzstan and is nestled between the Moldo Too mountains to the south and the Songkul Too ridge to the north. Song Kul and the grassy fields surrounding it are especially popular among travelers in the summertime. Visitors to the beautiful mountain lake enjoy swimming, hiking, camping, and horseback riding at the scenic alpine getaway.
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